Friday, August 31, 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

We all know that Carol at Magistramater has impeccable taste, so when she mentions a book more than once, it behooves you to run right out and get it.  (Thank heavens for kindle library books so that I could download it even here in Brazil.)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an absorbing murder mystery that takes place in England in the 1950’s. Its 11 year old protagonist has an obsession for chemistry, particularly poisonous concoctions.  Flavia de Luce finds a body in the garden and for the whole novel is always one step ahead of the police in discovering “whodunit.”

The book is chock-full of intriguing characters from the gardener with memory lapses, the stamp collecting father, the deceased mother, to the two obnoxious sisters.  Normally I eschew meanness, but Flavia’s vicious jibes at her two siblings are laugh out loud funny.

Although this is Alan Bradley’s first novel, he’s been writing short stories for many years and it shows.  He is a master of description and understated wit:  

 She gasped.  Her face went red, then gray, as if it had caught fire before my eyes and collapsed in an avalanche of ashes.  She pulled a lace handkerchief from her sleeve, knotted it, and jammed it into her mouth, and for a few moments, she sat there, rocking in her chair, gripping the lace between her teeth like an eighteenth-century seaman having his leg amputated below the knee. (p. 68)

A long hallway, hung profusely with dark, water-stained sporting prints, served as a lobby, in which centuries of sacrificed kippers had left the smell of their smoky souls clinging to the wallpaper. (p. 98)

Blessings on you, Carol, and on you, Mr. Bradley.  I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Inferno by Max Hastings - Part Two (Russia)

In the TV series, Hogan’s Heroes, General Burkhalter frequently warns the incompetent Colonel Klink that he’ll send him to the Russian Front.  Max Hasting’s Inferno makes it very clear why this was such a terrible threat.  It was on the Eastern Front that 90 percent of all Germans killed in combat met their fate (p. 316)

Hastings contends that Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was the defining event of the war because it diverted his attention away from the destruction of England and completely exhausted the resources he needed to win on other battle fronts.  I appreciated his analysis of Stalin, who although maniacal in much of his behavior, was very clear on the goals he wanted to accomplish and how he wanted to accomplish them.  Hastings also does a good job of expressing America’s ambivalence toward Russia’s involvement in the war.   Some relevant quotes:

Whatever the merits of the Russian people’s struggle to expel the invaders from their country, Stalin’s war aims were as selfish and inimical to human liberty as those of Hitler.  Soviet conduct could be deemed less barbaric than that of the Nazis only because it embraced no single enormity to match the Holocaust.  Nonetheless, the Western Allies were obliged to declare their gratitude, because Russia’s suffering and sacrifice saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young British and American soldiers. (p. 178)

The British people, awed by Russian resistance, embraced the Soviet Union as an ally with an enthusiasm that dismayed and even frightened their own ruling caste. (177)

Russia’s vast blood sacrifice spared the lives of hundreds of thousands of British and American soldiers, but in consequence the Red Army secured physical possession of an eastern European empire.  The Americans and British had no choice save to acquiesce in this, since they lacked both military means and domestic support for a new war to expel the Soviet Union from its conquests. (638)

The Americans and British had delivered half of Europe from one totalitarian tyranny, but lacked the political will and military means to save 90 million people of the easterly nations from falling victim to new Soviet bondage that lasted almost half a century.  The price of having joined with Stalin to destroy Hitler was high indeed. (631)

As I’ve said before, Max Hastings overview of the war is fascinating, informative and eloquent.  A very worthwhile read for history buffs. (Part One of this book review is here.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Inferno by Max Hastings - Part One

For those who want a month-by-month detailed overview of World War II, Hasting's Inferno is amazingly comprehensive.  Since he’s written other tomes on various events in the war, he dreaded being redundant here; thus, some sections are frustratingly brief.  The information he gives, however, is more than enough to overload your brain cells.  Because there is so much material, I want to cover a couple of key subjects in this review and finish up with further thoughts in next week’s post.

STATISTICS - The number of lives that were lost is staggering.  Hastings writes, Many people met death far from any battlefield.  The Jews of Europe suffered the most dramatic fate, but millions of other civilians – Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Chinese, Malays, Vietnamese, Indians – were extinguished by willful murder, chance explosion, disease or starvation. (p. 485) Around three quarters of all those who perished were unarmed victims rather than active participants in the struggle. (646)

An average of 27,000 people perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945.  Thirteen million died under bombardment or in German-occupied regions. (329)  There is no commonly agreed total of war-related deaths around the world, but a minimum figure of 60 million is accepted… Russia lost 27 million and China at least 15. (645)
FIGHTING METHODS - Since I had recently finished James Bradley’s Flyboys, I was particularly interested in Hastings’ comparison between the Axis and the Allied fighting methods. (Bradley saw them as equally brutal.)  Hastings builds a strong case for the different viewpoints of the enemies.   

The Japanese army in its new conquests sustained the tradition of savagery it had established in China, a perversion of virility and warrior spirit which was the more shocking for being institutionalized.  Soldiers of all nations, in all wars, are sometimes guilty of atrocities.  An important distinction can be made, however, between armies in which acts of barbarism represent a break with regulations and the norm, and those in which they are indulged or even incited by commanders.  The Japanese were prominent among the latter. (212)

To the Japanese and Russians, the lives of their soldiers and civilians were completely expendable.  Hitler assumed he could easily take over Russia, but it did not occur to Hitler, after his victories in the west, that it might be more difficult to overcome a brutalized society, inured to suffering, than democracies such as France and Britain, in which moderation and respect for human life were deemed virtues. (139)

With the exception of a few such enthusiasts as Patton, Allied commanders understood that they were mandated to win the war at the lowest possible human cost, and thus caution was a virtue, even in victory. (643)

Japanese willingness to fight to the death rather than surrender, even in tactically and indeed strategically hopeless circumstances, disgusted Allied troops.  American and British soldiers were imbued with the European historical tradition, whereby the honorable and civilized response to impending defeat was to abandon the struggle, averting gratuitous bloodshed.  Americans in the Pacific, like British soldiers in Burma, felt rage towards an enemy who rejected such civilized logic. (424)

Hastings is scholarly, eloquent, and clear-eyed. This fascinating and hefty book is one of the most articulate and even-handed overviews of the war that you’ll ever read.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Quote on Boredom by Jules Renard

On inner poverty. . .

Being bored is an insult to oneself. - Jules Renard

(from a post at Becoming Minimalist)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie

Helmet for My Pillow was originally published in 1957 and was probably reprinted on the heels of the success of another WWII memoir, Unbroken. And it’s a title well worthy of being re-published.

Marine Robert Leckie tells of his experiences in the Pacific beginning with Guadalcanal (Aug 1942) and ending with the first battle on Peleliu (Sept 1944).  I’m used to a fair amount of profanity in books about the war, but even though Leckie does not sanitize his experiences, he describes the drinking, womanizing, and swearing with such discretion that I was able to read his narrative with nary a blush. 

What sets this book above many other WWII bios is the amazing prose.  He describes the joys of comradeship, the horrors of battle, and the drudgery of daily life in the jungle with poignancy and consummate skill.  But rather than rave on and on about the book I’ll give you a few samples:

Huts, oil, beer.  Around these three, as around a sacramental triad, revolved our early life at New River.  Huts to keep us dry; oil to keep us warm; beer to keep us happy.  It is no unholy jest to call them sacramental; they had about them the sanctity of the earth. (p. 26)

[The island of] New Britain was evil, darkly and secretly evil, a malefactor and enemy of humankind, an adversary, really, dissolving, corroding, poisoning, chilling, sucking, drenching – coming at a man with its rolling mists and green mold and ceaseless downpour, tripping him with its numberless roots and vines, poisoning him with green insects and malodorous bugs and treacherous tree bark, turning the sun from his bones and the cheer from his heart, dissolving him – the rain, the mold, the damp steadily plucking each cell apart like tiny hands tearing at the petals of a flower – dissolving him, I say, into a mindless, formless fluid like the sop of mud into which his feet forever fall in a monotonous slop-suck, slop-suck that is the sound of nothingness, the song of the jungle wherein everything falls apart in hollow harmony with the rain.

Nothing could stand against it; a letter from home had to be read and reread and memorized, for it fell apart in your pocket in less than a week; a pair of socks lasted no longer; a pack of cigarettes became sodden and worthless unless smoked that day; pocketknife blades rusted together; watches recorded the period of their own decay; rain made garbage of the food; pencils swelled and burst apart; fountain pens clogged and their points separated…everything lay damp and sodden and squashy to the touch, exuding that steady musty reek that is the jungle’s own, that individual odor of decay rising from vegetable life so luxuriant, growing so swiftly, that it seems to hasten to decomposition from the moment of birth. (p. 241)

Read this if you are a fan of World War II history, especially if you have a penchant for fine writing.  One of my favorite books of 2012.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

More Book Quotes from Susan Hill

I enjoyed these bookish quotes from Howards End Is on the Landing:

Quote from Lady Eastlake: Things are written now to be read once and no more; that is, they are read as often as they deserve.  A book in old times took five years to write and was read five hundred times by five hundred people.  Now it is written in three months and read once by five hundred thousand people.  That’s the proper proportion. (p. 71)

Books help to form us.  If you cut me open, will you find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me?  Alice in Wonderland.  The Magic Faraway Tree.  The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The Book of Job. Bleak House. Wuthering Heights. The Complete Poems of W. H. Auden.  The Tale of Mr. Tod. Howards End.  What a strange person I must be.  But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me.  So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read.  I am my literary DNA. (p. 202)

(The picture is one I took of a statue in front of the library in Cadillac, MI.)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Kindle and Your Public Library

Although I love the convenience of Kindle for travel and enjoy all the free public domain books, I still read more physical books than Kindle titles.  I have discovered, however, another reason to really like my e-reader.  Just before leaving the U.S., I heard that I could check out Kindle books from my library.  I don’t read many modern books because I deplore the immorality and bad writing, but I took a look at the selection and was pleased to see that Max Hasting’s newest book, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, was available.

Within minutes I was able to begin reading this extensive overview of WWII.  The dictionary that is built into the reading device became invaluable as Hasting uses many military and British terms (boffin, wiseacre, shambolic, chivvy, etc.) with which I am unfamiliar.  Also (and this may not be an advantage to some), library books vanish automatically from my Kindle after three weeks so I was motivated to keep reading this 650 page book within that time frame.

The biggest drawback was that maps were unreadable on my early model (5 X 3 ½  screen), but I consider that to be a minor bugaboo in a program that allows me to read new books for no cost.  Now I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to check out e-library books from here in Brazil.

P.S. I read this post six months later and had to laugh.  Now I read 20 Kindle books for every physical book because I haven't found a good source for books in English in our new location.  And, yes, I can still get audiobooks and e-books through my wonderful Michigan library.